From Early Irish Republic Flags https://www.crwflags.com/fotw/flags/ie_irep.html#davis; image by Jaume Ollé after a photo by Nozomi Kariyasu, 5 May 2005. This is the Green Harp flag, which is believed to have been one of the flags flown during the 1798 rebellion in Ireland. I'm sure James O'Reilly would have been familiar with it.
James “Grandpa” O’Reilly is not related to Maggie, except by bonds of love. He entered her sphere as an indigent, impoverished old Irish immigrant, and to tell the truth, I still don’t know much of his backstory because he hasn’t revealed it yet.
But I do know what Grandpa O’Reilly looks like. In my mind, he resembles Irish actor Wilfrid Brambell (1912-1985), who played Paul McCartney’s father in “A Hard Day’s Night.”
Image from https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0104183/. Brambell is shown here with John Lennon in A Hard Day’s Night.
Although a Beatles film is where I first encountered Brambell, the reality is that he was a well-known actor in Ireland and the United Kingdom. He appeared in numerous productions, including the BBC’s “Steptoe and Son,” which served as the model for an Americanized version called “Sanford and Son” (staring Redd Foxx)
In Saint Maggie, Jim is described this way:
The oldest boarder was Jim O’Reilly, an Irishman who used to do odd jobs around town but had been curtailed by arthritis. Unlike Chester Carson, Jim rarely had money enough to pay room and board. Maggie had no intention of turning him out, though. She had long decided that was no way to treat an elder. So over the past seven years, he had become Lydia and Frankie’s “grandfather,” and they all referred to him as “Grandpa O’Reilly.”
Jim O’Reilly is a Roman Catholic. Sadly, in 1860, there is no Catholic Church in Blaineton. Maggie notes that he “staunchly refuses” to attend the Methodist Episcopal Church with her, and this bothers her. But the old man stays away from church altogether until the family moves to Gettysburg in Walk by Faith. Once there, he discovers a Catholic Church is in the town.
“You know, I’d like to attend church this Sunday,” Grandpa O’Reilly suddenly announced. “It’s been years since I’ve been to Mass. But I must go to confession first.”
“Confession?” Nate chuckled. “What does a man your age have to confess?”
“Oh, you’d be surprised.” Grandpa’s eyes twinkled, but he quickly became serious once more. “It’s not just what we do, you know. It’s what we think and crave, as well. I’m in bad need of confession – and at my age, I need to be cleansed before I meet my Maker.”
Like most of the other men in Maggie’s extended family, Grandpa also enjoys taking a celebratory drink now and then. In fact, he gets a wee bit inebriated at Maggie and Eli’s wedding and ends up singing drinking songs with Carson, Edgar, and Patrick on Maggie’s back porch.
But Jim has a deep and tender love for Maggie, as well, something which is clear after a shocking event occurs toward the end of the first novel:
Grandpa O’Reilly led her to a chair, sat her down, and then sat on a chair beside her. He wrapped a blanket around her shoulders. “We’ve got to get her warm, Frankie. She’s shocked. Go get the bottle in the wood shed, and a glass.” While the girl was gone, he hugged Maggie tightly. “It’ll be all right, my daughter. We’re with you now.”
Maggie was amazed at the fuss he was making. I’m not upset in the least, she thought. I’m just cold.
When she looked up again, she saw Frankie pouring amber liquid into a glass. Grandpa took the glass from her and pushed the cold rim to Maggie’s lips.
The smell of what was within made her recoil. “No. No whiskey!”
“Drink it,” Grandpa ordered and tipped the glass.
The whiskey tasted dreadful – it burned all the way down her throat and the fumes made her cough, but in the very next second, warmth began to seep from her stomach into her icy limbs.
Grandpa gave her another sip and smiled as she coughed. “There, there, my daughter. That’s better,” he cooed. He wrapped his bony arms about her. “There now, you’ll come round soon.”
For a skinny old man, Grandpa is brave, if not rather feisty. When a group of ruffians surround the home of Samuel and Abigail Beatty, Maggie’s brother and sister-in-law, he assesses the situation.
“I’ve met their sort before, back in Ireland in the thirties. It was during the Tithe War. Aye, it’ll be a tough one, but we can take ‘em, boyos.”
Carson laid a hand on Grandpa’s shoulder. “I think you’d best help get the women and children to safety, O’Reilly.”
“Why? I may be old, my lad, but I’m not dead!”
That’s the only bit of Jim O’Reilly’s backstory that I know. In 1831, he would have been 39 years old and living in Ireland. The Tithe War, which began that year, was precipitated by a law forcing Catholic landholders to pay ten percent of the value of their agricultural produce to the support of Protestant clergy and the maintenance of Church of Ireland facilities. Things exploded when the government tried to seize cattle from a farm to pay the tithe. The issue: the land and the cattle belonged to a Roman Catholic priest. Hostilities continued until 1838 when a law finally was passed by Parliament giving the Catholics partial relief from a heavy tax benefitting the Protestant Church of Ireland.
It is uncertain how much Grandpa was involved in the Tithe War, but in Seeing the Elephant we learn that he is a bit of a radical, perhaps even a revolutionary. Case in point: A servant has arrived at the Register. He gives Editor-in-Chief Eli a note from industrialist Josiah Norton. After the servant departs, Grandpa has this to say:
“Lackey,” Grandpa hissed, obsessing over the butler. “I’ve no use for the likes of him and his ways.”
“Everybody has to have a job,” Frankie said.
“Aye, well, I’d rather work with me hands for me day’s bread than bow and scrape.” He nodded at Eli. “What’s Mr. High and Mighty want?”
As it turns out, the note is an invitation to a winter ball. It is politic to accept, since it is politic for Eli to have cordial relations with the industrialist. As a favor, Grandpa drives Eli and Maggie in the sleigh to Norton’s mansion. And this exchange between Grandpa and Eli happens when he drops his friends off:
Grandpa watched the couple over his shoulder. “Look after yourselves among the high and mighty,” he warned.
“You look after yourself, O’Reilly,” Eli replied. “Don’t go fomenting any revolutions while you’re hobnobbing with the servants.”
“Ah, you’re no fun at all,” the old man muttered and shook the reins. “Get up!”
So, there you are. Jim “Grandpa” O’Reilly – devoted family member, loyal Roman Catholic, whiskey connoisseur, fighter, and… revolutionary?
On Wednesday, I’ll look into black-owned newspapers, because they are related to another secondary character.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder